Black Scholars Encounter Hurdles in Obtaining Funding for Research

May 10, 2021

Black scientists, particularly female social scientists, face a systemic funding gap in the awarding of federal research grants. This undercuts efforts to ease racial inequalities in the provision of quality health care for Black communities, according to Naa Oyo Kwate ’02Ph.D, keynote speaker for the fourth installment of “Women of Color in the Academy,” the 2020–21 Vincentian Chair of Social Justice lecture series.

“Black scientists are significantly less likely to have their grant proposals funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) than their White counterparts,” Dr. Kwate said in her presentation on April 29, “If Black lives don’t matter in real life, why would they on the page? Navigating racism in scientific research funding and publishing.”

“This means that the pressing social and health concerns of Black communities are less likely to receive attention,” she added, “and that health disparities are, therefore, unlikely to be reduced if we are not doing research on them.”

The lecture series, hosted by St. John’s University’s Vincentian Center for Church and Society (VCCS), is designed to explore the inequity and exclusion that women of color experience in different streams of modern culture. Beverly Greene, Ph.D., Professor, Department of PsychologySt. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, served as moderator of the final lecture in the series for the academic year.

Dr. Kwate is Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Human Ecology at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and holds her doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology from St. John’s University. She is an interdisciplinary social scientist with wide-ranging interests in racial inequality and African American health.

According to Dr. Kwate, between 2000 and 2008, Black principal investigators (PI) totaled less than one percent of all research grant awardees from the NIH, and they totaled 1.3 percent of applicants—a number that inched up to approximately 2.5 percent by 2019.

She explained that the racial funding gap means that Black faculty who conduct health research face career jeopardy—especially when those grant dollars are needed to complete and publish their work, as well as to attain promotions and tenure.

“That means that Black scholars are less likely to move along in their trajectory to senior positions where the kind of decisions that affect the health and well-being of Black communities are being made,” she said. “It is also the case that when Black scientists are systematically disadvantaged for that funding, it quashes any likelihood that we will be adequately able to grapple with and remediate the pressing inequities of our time, be it health or otherwise.”

By way of example, Dr. Kwate pointed to the NIH’s Innovator Award grant program, noting only eight Black male scientists were named awardees throughout the 14 years of the program. “And even that abysmally low number is four times that of Black women—two of whom received Innovator grants over those 14 years,” she said, adding “and one of them was me.”

The researcher also referred to the NIH’s Pioneer Award grant program. “Here again, Black men are atrociously underrepresented as grant awardees, and Black women are nonexistent,” observed Dr. Kwate.

Rev. Patrick J. Griffin, C.M., Executive Director of the VCCS, said Dr. Kwate’s words were “engaging and convincing” as she emphasized the difficulty that Black scholars encounter in propelling perspectives and positions into the publishing world or onto a research track.

“Journals and other media often do not regard the importance of the thesis, the qualifications of the writer, or the validity of the conclusions. Thus, contributions of people of color to issues affecting people of color are sidelined and devalued,” said Fr. Griffin.“

Dr. Kwate demonstrated the truth of this thesis, even in the most prestigious of journals and funding organizations.”

When asked by Dr. Greene to convey her reaction to Dr. Kwate’s reflections, guest panelist Wendi Williams, Ph.D., Dean of the School of Education at Mills College in Oakland, CA, said, “I think it really does matter why we don’t have a curiosity for what would promote and lift up the health of Black people—and to really appreciate that we never wondered about that as a larger global society and culture.”

“Leaders, deans, including faculty deans, and provosts need to think about how do we make sure that our scholars can actually do the research work that will answer problems in our world and communities,” added Dr. Williams, who is also President of Division 35: Society for the Psychology of Women of the American Psychological Association.